After the Carolina Panthers humiliated Philadelphia last Sunday to earn a trip to Super Bowl XXXVIII, millions of casual football fans asked themselves this question: Who, or what, are the Carolina Panthers? A survey of the non-football-obsessed portion of my family, for instance, reveals that only half have, at one time or another, seen the phrase "Carolina Panthers." (Though I think this number is inflated: Jake Delhomme, the team's Cajun starting quarterback, just made the news in New Orleans by purchasing a horse.) My roommate confesses that he hasn't heard of the franchise at all.
So, who are they then? First of all, they have no relation to the erstwhile 1983 USFL champion Michigan Panthers, nor to the Arena Football League's Carolina Cobras, who would like to invite you to their annual Fang Fest this weekend.
But like the Cobras, these Panthers suffer from the dreaded "New England" syndrome—the appropriation of a large region to camouflage the fact that no one has any clue where they play. (Answer: Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers of U.S. municipalities.)
Indeed, the Panthers are the most-obscure team, with the fewest stars, to ever play in America's most-watched sporting event. The 1999 Tennessee Titans had Eddie George, Steve McNair, and the Music City Miracle. The 2000 Ravens featured Ray "The Justice Obstructer" Lewis. Even last year's Tampa Bay Bucs had an unmatched history of futility. Yet in just their ninth year of existence, the Panthers have, uh—well, what do they have?
Surely you remember that the Panthers spent two first-round picks and $46.5 million on Sean Gilbert, came up with the idea of (unsuccessfully) luring Joe Gibbs out of retirement, and were recommended by God to Reggie White as a good team to play for? All those magical moments, and they don't even make the cut of Sports Nut's top 10 moments in Carolina Panthers history:
1. Beat Philadelphia 14-3 to advance to Super Bowl (2004). The accomplishment is slightly tainted in that it came in the 2003 NFC, perhaps the worst conference in the storied history of professional sport.
2. Rae Carruth becomes first professional athlete to face capital murder charges during his playing career (1999). After one of his friends guns down Carruth's pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, in a drive-by shooting, the wide receiver high-tails it out of town. He's eventually found by the FBI hiding in the trunk of a car in a motel parking lot in Tennessee. Carruth was acquitted of first-degree murder but found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to 19 to 24 years.
3. Running back Fred Lane killed by his wife (2000). A few months after he was traded to Indianapolis, for whom he never played, Lane was shot to death in his Charlotte home by his wife, Deidra Lane. In the two years before his death, Fred Lane thrilled fans with his "Worm" end-zone dance, was arrested on drug and weapons charges, and became possibly the first NFL player to be suspended for a game for grabbing his crotch. Deidra Lane is now serving seven years and 11 months for voluntary manslaughter.
4. Reach NFC Championship game in franchise's second year (1996). Another slightly tainted accomplishment, this time because the Panthers' partners in expansion, the Jaguars, also make it to the conference championships. In their title tilt, the Panthers lose to the Green Bay Packers, 30-13.
5. The Kerry Collins Era (1995-1998). After leading the team to the NFC championship game in his second season, pretty-boy quarterback Collins falls on hard times. In 1997, during a preseason night on the town, a drunken Collins uses a racial slur in front of teammates and gets punched in the face by offensive lineman Norberto Davidds-Garrido. Then in 1998, starting quarterback Collins goes to coach Dom Capers after the team's 0-4 start and, according to Capers, says "his heart wasn't totally into what he was doing." Six days after the conversation, the team cuts him. In a return visit to Charlotte later that year as a member of the New Orleans Saints, Collins is arrested for driving under the influence.
6. Kevin Greene wrestles with assistant coach (1998). During a game against the Washington Redskins, Greene and linebackers coach Kevin Steele get in a shouting match about the defensive game plan. Greene, who occasionally dabbles in pro wrestling, adds a Sprewellian touch to the conversation by grabbing Steele by the lapels and shoving him backward. Greene gets suspended for one game.
7. George Seifert loses his way out of the NFL's all-time best winning percentage (1999-2001). After retiring from the San Francisco 49ers in 1997, Seifert had a record of 108-35 and a winning percentage of .755. After closing out his three-year Panthers run with a 1-15 season, Seifert re-retired with a 124-67 record and a .649 winning percentage, which places him just outside the top 10 in league history.
8. Team builds life-size bronze statue of Sam Mills (1998). New Orleans Saints great Mills, who played for the Panthers for only three seasons, is presently the only player in the Panthers "Hall of Honor." In August of 2003, Mills, now the team's linebackers coach, is diagnosed with cancer. Less than two weeks earlier, the team's other former Saints linebacker, Mark Fields, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.
9. Julius Peppers gets 12 sacks, violates league's drug policy (2002). Peppers, the second overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft, was leading the NFL in sacks when he tested positive for a banned substance. He claims the result was due to a supplement a friend gave him. Despite missing four games, he still wins the AP's defensive rookie of the year award.
10. Sort of featured in Ericsson cell phone commercial (1997). The ad, which premiered during a Monday Night Football game between the Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers, depicted a blackout at the team's year-old Ericsson Stadium. The game is only able to continue when ingenious fans simultaneously illuminate the displays on their Ericsson cell phones. While the players on the field sport uniforms curiously similar to those worn by the Panthers and 49ers, later versions of the ad include a disclaimer: "Teams depicted do not represent actual football teams."